UN study on why people illegally migrate from Africa


More than 90% of African migrants who embark on the perilous and sometimes fatal journey to Europe in search of a better life would do it again to escape poverty and the uncertain future in their countries of birth.

A landmark UN migration study – “Scaling Fences: voices of irregular African migrants to Europe” – attempts to find out why those who put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and other vulnerable positions to cross borders make the decision to avoid formal immigration procedures.

The report compiled by the UN Development Programme was published this week at UN headquarters in New York. It contains information obtained from 1 970 migrants from 39 of Africa’s 54 countries. All those interviewed said they arrived in Europe through irregular means and not for asylum or protection related reasons.

The report found employment (getting a job) was not the only motivation to move; not all irregular migrants were poor, nor had lower education levels. Around 58% were either employed or in school when the decision to leave was taken, with the majority of those working, earning competitive wages. Around half of those working told interviewers they were not earning enough.

Sixty percent of those interviewed said earning or the prospect of earning in their home countries, did not stop them travelling.

“Scaling Fences highlights migration as a reverberation of development progress across Africa, albeit uneven and not fast enough to meet peoples’ aspirations. Barriers to opportunity, or ‘choice-lessness’, emerge as critical factors informing the decisions of these people,” Achim Steiner, UNDP administrator, said.

“By shining a light on why people move through irregular channels and what they experience when they do, Scaling Fences contributes to debate on the role of human mobility in fostering progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals and best approaches to governing it.”

Some interviewed migrants said:

“If you have a family, you have to ensure they have food, shelter, medicine and education. I have a young daughter. People may ask what kind of father I am to leave behind my wife and infant daughter. But what kind of a father would I be, if I stayed and couldn’t provide a decent life for them?”

“The idea to reduce migration is to look at causes. It is governing policies that entrench people in poverty, that don’t develop anything. Schools that don’t exist, failing health and corruption, repression. That pushes people to emigrate.”

“In five years, I see myself in my home country. For a good five years, my family haven’t seen each other. So one day will come when we will see each other. And when I go back to my home country, I don’t think I will come back”

“It was all to earn money. Thinking of my mom and dad. My big sister. My little sister. To help them. That was my pressure. That’s why Europe.”

The apparent shame of failing in their “mission” to send sufficient funds home emerged as a major factor keeping migrants working in Europe, according to UNDP.

Around 53% received support from family and friends to make the journey and once in Europe, around 78% were sending money back.

The report found key differences between men and women in terms of the migrant experience. A gender pay gap which favours men in Africa, “resoundingly reverses in Europe, with women earning 11% more, contrasting with previously earning 26% less in Africa”, said UNDP.

A higher proportion of women were sending money back – even among those not earning.

When it comes to crime, women suffer more, with a higher proportion falling victim to crime in the six months prior to being interviewed than men and significantly higher incidents of sexual assault.

Opportunity and choice must expand at home

UNDP sees Calling Fences as “a clarion call to expand opportunity and choice in Africa while enhancing opportunities to move from ‘ungoverned’ to ‘governed’ migration, in line with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”.